Posted by Sarah Weigold
19 August, 2020

Designer Sarah shares her top tips, resources and lessons learned during time on furlough.

It’s hard to believe that only a few months ago I had to Google the word ‘furlough’ to figure out why one of our clients was going to be uncontactable for a few weeks; now no catch-up conversation is complete without checking which of your mutual friends is on or off furlough.

The days running up to my furlough were a rollercoaster. Part of me was excited at the prospect of sunbathing and binge watching and part of me was worried that all I would do was sunbathe and binge watch. But as I was leaving, a wise woman (Laura Ward, queen of extra-curricular activities) said, “furlough is essentially getting paid to do whatever you want; you’ll never get a chance like this again”. With that, my perspective changed. I was going to spend the months from April to July finally trying to learn all those things I’d wanted to, but hadn’t had time for (with a healthy portion of binge watching and sunbathing as well). Now that I’m back at work and the studio is busy with exciting projects, I’ve pulled together this blog to share some of the best things I learned while on furlough, with links so that you can give them a go as well.

1. Touch typing

A design education will give you many things – problem-solving ability, an appreciation of colour, and obsessive attention to detail, but it will not give you any practice in writing words quickly. I’ve long been embarrassed about being a fully grown adult who still types with two fingers, so learning to touch type has been on the to-do list for a long time. There are plenty of online typing courses, but I went for after a long and detailed search (Googling FREE touch typing and selecting the first result). Although it’s clearly designed for a younger audience, I enjoyed the short lessons broken up with ninja games, and hey, who doesn’t want to be awarded stars for all their hard work? In the end, I found my typing lessons strangely addictive; during the early pandemic days, when the news was so overwhelming, there was a strange comfort in methodically copying out sentences.

If you’d like to improve your words per minute give a go.

2. Creatives need to be more honest

My friend and I began organising a networking event for local graphic designers and illustrators back when the expected response to “do you have Corona?” was “yes, would you like lime and ice with that?”. When the day of the event came, we were in week six of lockdown and it totally changed the tone of the (now virtual) meeting for the better. It seemed like the pandemic gave everyone involved permission not to be ok. Self-promotion is a big part of being a professional creative, but so many of us forget to turn that off, so we tell friends that we are super-busy working on really interesting projects, even when that’s not the whole truth. This evening of pandemic-fuelled honesty was so refreshing. I was relieved to hear that people with awards, careers and clients I envied were struggling with home working, battling imposter syndrome and feeling just as concerned about the current situation as I was.

Networking breakfasts are an easy way to get connected to other creatives; try Stranger Collective in Cornwall or Creative Mornings worldwide.

3. How to be happier

Somewhere around the middle of furlough I stumbled across the Science of Well-Being Course and ignoring one of my basic rules for life (#5 Never trust anyone claiming to increase happiness), I signed up. The ‘Happiness Course’, as it’s become known, is a series of lectures from Yale University giving an overview of the scientific research into wellbeing, why the things we think will make us happy won’t, and what we can actually do to be happier. Some of the findings aren’t newsworthy – there are no prizes for guessing that money won’t make you happy. But some of the research throws up counterintuitive ideas, such as the suggestion that watching TV with advert breaks may make you happier, but losing weight might make you less happy. With Covid-19 forcing us all to reassess our priorities and think about what we’re working towards, it’s no surprise that the course went viral during lockdown with almost three million people having signed up. If you can ignore Coursera’s awful UX, it’s a total (free) gem and well worth 19 hours of your time.

Sign up to the Science of Well-Being course at Coursera for free.

4. The class of 2020 is one to watch

I was lucky enough to see portfolios from students graduating from Falmouth University’s Graphic Design course, and was so impressed with their work. It seems that leaving university at a time of intense uncertainty and pressure has pushed them to work even harder to stand out. These guys now face the unenviable task of trying to get a foot in the door when agencies have left the building, but hopefully it will bring about a radical rethinking of the intern system, which is long overdue. It may take them a little longer than usual to get established, but from what I’ve seen you should keep your eyes peeled for this lot – they’re going to do great work.

Check out Falmouth’s online showcase to see work from all the graduating Graphic Design students.

5. Modern calligraphy

After years of nervous laughter when people say “you’re a designer? You must have lovely handwriting”, I enthusiastically signed up when I heard that a modern calligraphy workshop was coming to town. I loved it, but after the initial enthusiasm waned, calligraphy dropped to the bottom of my to-do list. Furlough was the kick I needed to start practicing again, and it turned out that calligraphy was another great way to cope with the anxiety of the pandemic; through totally focusing on a task, ignoring notifications, and taking a much-needed screen break. It was nice to feel like I was getting better at something (this might not be obvious from the photo below – but you haven’t seen the before photos!). Don’t be put off by the whimsical calligraphy that is oh-so-popular on Etsy/Pinterest. There are plenty of different styles out there, including the much more macho ‘blackletter’, so find one that suits you.

My workshop was with Lyndsey from Wildsea Calligraphy. You can also find free calligraphy and lettering guides on Youtube and Instagram.

6. Flower arranging

I’ve always loved flowers (hint hint) but thought flower arranging was the domain of women wearing purple in damp church halls. However, during lockdown I noticed friends sharing photos of beautiful bunches and realised that their bouquets probably didn’t look that perfect by chance. So, I reluctantly decided to give flower arranging a try, well aware that alongside calligraphy my choice of lockdown activities was making me sound like the lame sister in a Jane Austen novel. Flower arranging is definitely one of those things where a small amount of knowledge makes a huge difference, which was perfect for this impatient furlougher, and after watching a few videos my blooms were looking so much better. The best bit was that the flowers lasted far longer due to actually being cared for (sorry, flowers of the past, for neglecting you). I’m never going to be a flower expert (I’ve seen Netflix’s Flower Fight and know that it gets very weird) but can now pull together a posy, so someone send word to Mr Darcy.

Bloom & Wild’s short and beginner-friendly tutorial videos are a great way to master bouquet basics.

7. Coding basics

Of all the teams at Nixon the developers are by far the most mysterious. I have a fairly good idea of what everyone else does all day, but if I look over at a dev’s screen I couldn't, for the life of me, tell you whether they are working hard, hardly working or writing their debut novel. Having designed websites, I was fascinated by the processes involved in actually creating them, and furlough seemed like a good length of time to set about learning the basics of code. I had no idea where to start (so many languages, so many options) but our technical director Luke recommended Codecademy, which I got on well with. On this course, you start writing your own code from day one, so it suits hands-on-learners like myself. The subscription price is pretty high, so it’s a good choice if you’ve got a chunk of time to devote to learning. One of the joys of knowing a bit of code is being able to ‘open the hood’ and see how the websites I like using were built. I might even stop designing sites that are complicated to build, or I might not! *evil laugh*

Codecademy is a great place to start learning code. For a free alternative, try Future Learn’s Digital Skills for the Workplace courses or the Institute of Coding directory.